“Did you hear the joke about the man who made a small fortune in the space industry?”
He subtly pauses before delivering the punchline:
“He started with a large one.”
Musk, currently the chief executive of SpaceX, Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity, is all too aware of the enormous risks -- and upsides -- involved in sinking his time and fortune into high-risk tech ventures.
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He came into millions at the age of 27, after he sold his first company, Zip2, an online-media services company, to Compaq for $307 million in 1999. He founded another startup, X.com, that same year, which eventually became PayPal and was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. He reportedly netted approximately $180 million from the sale.
So, Musk was already deemed successful when he launched SpaceX in 2002. However, six years later, following three failed launches for his flagship rocket, his prospects looked grim. He was down to his last $75 million, says The Telegraph, which is a fortune for many startups, but considering the rockets at the time cost approximately $90 million to build -- and he was the sole funder of SpaceX at the time -- another launch failure would have likely meant financial ruin.
Plus, things were touch and go at his other company, Tesla Motors. The company (launched in 2003) had released its first electric car in 2008, a $100,000 Roadster, which encountered multiple quality issues that led to multiple recalls.
To top it off, Musk was going through a very acrimonious divorce from his first wife, the mother of his five children.
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“Both Tesla and SpaceX were very close to dying,” admits Musk looking back. “SpaceX had our third launch failure. We just barely had enough resources to do a fourth.”
The fourth launch took place in September 2008 and was successful. As a result, the company was awarded several multibillion-dollar contracts from NASA to help the U.S. resupply the International Space Station (ISS) and reestablish astronaut travel to and from the space station.
As of 2015, SpaceX was valued at $12 billion, reports the Wall Street Journal and has moved on to successfully test a more advanced and powerful launcher, the Falcon 9. The next generation of launcher, the Falcon Heavy, is slated to test this year and “will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two,” reads the SpaceX website.
Tesla, which teetered close to bankruptcy in 2013, according to a report from Bloomberg, also powered through its rough patch and won back public trust. In a tweet dated April 3, 2016, Musk announced that Tesla’s third generation of car, which comes out in 2017, to date has 325,0000 orders in pre-sales, says CNBC.
And Musk’s personal fortune is back in the billions. As of 2016, he is estimated to be worth $14.4 billion, according to Forbes.
The Musk titillates and fascinates as a larger-than-life figure who risks where most don’t dare, so his moments of humanity are oddly reassuring. He’s come close to tears during multiple televised interviews. His romantic life is rocky: he’s two-times divorced -- soon to be three times -- and married his second wife, twice.
Check out these additional six facts that shed light on what makes the man who wants to colonize Mars truly unique.